Memphis, Tenn., 2006
It’s the morning of your father’s funeral, and C.K.’s smells like the usual dank cocktail of fried bacon, cigarettes, and mop water. You take the table furthest from the sunrising windows. You take stock of things. On the table: saltshaker, peppershaker, sugar caddy. In the chair: a Memphis Flyer and a Commercial Appeal somebody left behind. You scan the headlines. Two cops busted on drug charges. Post-9/11 opera. Arkansas political wives become candidates. In your pocket: your last ten dollars and a folded piece of paper with a something written on it. In your heart: a blank spot.
A waitress waddles over to you, heavy-set and probably soft to the touch, you imagine. She asks you what you’d like to drink.
-Black coffee, please.
She disappears then reappears with a cup of steaming black. Her hands shake as she sets it in front of you, along with a small silver spoon.
-You ready to order?
You nod and order a fried egg with a slice of toast and apricot jam. You say it very politely, by which to mean there is a veneer of inauthenticity in your voice, but you assume she doesn’t pick up on it.
-We don’t have apricot.
-Whatever you have is fine then.
-We have grape.
-Grape is fine then.
She waddles off in her white apron and rubbery black shoes like a penguin crossing the Antarctic tundra. A bouquet of bells jangle against the front door as a woman enters the diner. She is old: each year visible on her skin, able to be counted like rings on a tree. They tug at her body, pulling it closer and closer to the ground. She is holding a baby doll in her arms, supporting its head. With the tenderness of a new mother she coos to it, calming it—as if its plastic heart could ever beat too fast, as if it could pound itself into mortality and back out again, as if it were at risk of lapsing into an even more inanimate state, leaving her childless, without purpose. She is wearing a pale denim mini skirt and pantyhose to hide a network of varicose veins. Her dyed blonde hair, pulled into a tight ponytail at the top of her head, is wrapped with a pink polka dot ribbon. She looks twelve plus sixty lost years. She shakes you deep down inside, something about her endearing nightmarishness, or the fact that you worshipped Twin Peaks as a teenager and she’s as Lynchian as they come.
-Seat yourself, says the waitress.
The woman nods in someone’s direction, then begins moving through the diner like a ghost, despondent and slow, holding her toy child, wishing either of them were alive.
She looks down at the doll.
-Shelley, sweetheart, where would you like to sit today?
This morning is different from all the ones that will come after it. Things appear precious to you, in the general sense. Every strange person, the smoky diner, the normalness of things. Tragedy gives this to us if we’re lucky—and you were—inasmuch as you got a glimpse of it, but only a glimpse. This morning was the short-lived eye of your worst storm, a jewel of lucidity that slipped out of your hand and stayed lost for a long time.
The day after this one, you start drinking at dawn and stay drunk for ten years straight. You lock yourself in your apartment for days, weeks, months on end with no tether to the outside world. You drink until you starting bleeding from the inside out, from your mouth and from your bowels. You drink until the doctors tell you never to drink again, not another drop or you’ll die. And then you drink some more.
Nothing will appear to you in all that time; the world will be a blur and you will prefer it this way. You will be heavy with anger, and like an anchor you’ll drag it around, refusing to accept any reason that might justify the pain, which is hardly even pain after a few years—just noise, just a greyish garbled noise.
This morning is different from all the ones that will come after it.
But this morning at C.K.’s, you can still see things; the darkness has not sunk its teeth into you yet. You feel that if something is alive—if it is breathing, walking, and talking—then it’s inherently worthy of your love and deference. Because look at us, you think. We’re all here, aren’t we?
An old man with eyes the color of shadows sits in a corner all the way across the diner. He is alone, the kind of forever alone you can sense immediately, chewing on a toothpick. He sees you looking at him and stands up from the booth. Wrinkled skin with a spine that curls like an eyelash. He looks like a human-sized question mark. You hold your breath as his rickety body shuffles toward you.
-Fine day, ain’t it? he asks.
-It is, you say.
-Every day I wake up is a fine day.
He shuffles past your table and into the restrooms where he remains forever. Steam from your coffee swims up in ribbons as you swirl in a sugar cube with the small silver spoon. Your knuckles look like rolling hills, you watch them undulate and your mind drifts out to sea—out and further out, buoying far past the horizon.
You got word of your father’s death three days ago. It was a telephone call from your mother. She was calm. Numb, even.
-Sit down, she said. Her voice sounded like the waitress’s rubbery shoes.
-Okay, I’m seated.
But you weren’t seated. You were standing at your kitchen counter, mostly upright, staring into a glass of absinthe. The last of the bottle you smuggled home from Prague two years before, and which you only drink on special occasions. You still don’t know if it’s the real real stuff but it doesn’t matter—it is something different and rare, and that’s enough to make it precious, to make it ceremonial. The funny thing is, you poured the glass before the phone even rang. Little augural moments such as this and a few others make you question whether or not there are larger forces at work—forces kind enough to brace you for impact, but not kind enough to stop it.
Words poured from your mother’s mouth into the receiver and, with the velocity of an ambulance barreling through a crowded intersection, they careened over miles and miles of telephone signals lobbed across the country, into your house, into your phone, and crashed full-speed into your unarmed head like a barrage of fire-tailed meteors.
When she was done talking, you took the absinthe in one gulp and stared at the red numbers blinking on the stove. They told you it was noon, noon, noon, noon, noon. Only noon, noon, noon.
Since that moment, which was yesterday, or was it three days ago? You aren’t sure, but since then, the hours have moved slower than they ever have before. Your father has been dead for three minutes, three hours, three years, three eons. Days drag out into weeks, into months. Life seems impossibly long, contrary to what you’ve been led to believe about its pace.
When you snap out of the coffee cup daze, a plate of hot food is already on the table. More ribbons of steam lift up and out. You stab the egg yolk with a fork, and watch the buttery yellow blood run across the plate. Your phone vibrates loudly against the keys in your book bag—eight unread texts and eleven missed calls. They’ll have to wait. There are times when everyone just has to wait.
Bells. A young guy walks in the front door. Handsome, well-dressed.
-Morning, sit wherever you like, says the waitress.
You look up at him, then right back down. You are young, too. Almost twenty-three. You’ve been around enough good-looking, taught, golden people, they don’t stir you anymore, don’t do anything at all to you. Young people are beautiful and there’s not very much to think about when it comes to beauty. It is what it is. You’ve always thought it better to surround yourself with the worn-out ones, the burn-outs, the has-beens, the drop-outs, the mistake-makers. The people whose clothes don’t fit right, whose skin doesn’t fit right, whose voices are like sandpaper, whose cards are permanently stacked against them, people whose long lives and tragic tales ooze out of their pores like a thick, cloying sap. Those are the ones qualified to teach you a thing or two.
When you were nineteen and on a Greyhound bus to Little Rock, a guy sitting next to you told you a story about his sister who’d been burned in a fire. She lost her sight and one of her arms. You can’t remember the details of the story, but you remember what he said at the end.
-It’s the broken ones who fly closest to God.
He told you to never forget that, and you never did.
In the corner of the restaurant: a gold jukebox. It’s like an oracle, a monolith. You walk up to it, with due reverence, and flip through the albums. You feel like you could flip through them for all eternity.
Just before the handsome young man leaves with his take-out food, he walks up behind you and taps your shoulder.
-Hey, didn’t I see you at the Hi-Tone last weekend?
You know he probably said it gently, but to you, his words sound like large sheets of aluminum siding being dragged across black top.
-No, you say.
-You weren’t at the Walkmen show? he asks.
-No, you say, and you think about how nice his head would look rolling down Poplar Street in the soft moonlight. That’s an awful thought. You scrub it from your mind.
-That’s crazy. Well, you’ve got a serious Doppelgänger running around town. I could’ve sworn it was you!
For lack of anything better to do, you close your eyes very, very tight. And—poof! Suddenly there you are on a speeding rickshaw in Bangalore. Elijah is sitting next to you. He loves you again. His arm is around you. The caramel-skinned peddler is looking over his shoulder at you both. Weather symphonic, wind everywhere, your hair blowing wild, songs of a zither coming from somewhere, spices from the market wafting in and out of your lungs—the grass never greener!—the sun never sunnier!—having everything and nothing, bumping along an ancient dirt road.
When you open your eyes, the young man is gone—poof! And to think, during the ten-year drunken fugue that will follow, you will skulk around parties and pubs wondering why it’s so difficult for you to connect to other humans. It will be one of those questions that brings you to your knees, one of those questions that will ruin you.
You go back to flipping albums at the jukebox. Elvis. No. Rolling Stones. Eh, no. Garth Brooks. God no. Ol Blue Eyes. No. Three-six Mafia. Seriously? No. “Eleanor Rigby.” Hmm. In your head: flash throngs of shrieking girls all around the world, mouths gaping open in some unsettling photograph your father showed you long ago. The girls thin and screaming, doubled over barricades like they were being herded into Auschwitz. You think of how beautiful and stupid it would be to play “Eleanor Rigby” right now—play it for just you, the doll lady, the question mark, and the waitress.
Ah, look at all the lonely people.
Where do they all come from?
Ah, look at all the lonely people.
Where do they all belong?
You don’t play it. Instead you stuff the quarter into the depths of your front pocket and pull out the folded piece of paper. The words on it say “Johnnie Whittaker, 937 Cooper Street.” You finish the last of your fried egg, say thank you it was very good, leave five bucks on the table, then head south toward Cooper.
Bells jangle as you push open the door to the address on the paper. A sign tells you you’re at Pizza Planet. Next to the words on the sign: a crude painting of a spotted pizza whizzing though outer space. A pot-bellied man wearing a tweed golfer hat is sitting at the bar hunched over a small stack of papers and a half-empty pint glass.
-Hello, he says without looking up.
-I’m looking for Johnnie, you say.
-That’s me. And it’s Mr. Whittaker, for God’s sake.
-Of course, I’m sorry, Mr. Whittaker. It’s nice to meet you…sir.
You speak with an impish insecurity and extend your clammy hand. He shakes it reluctantly.
-My name is J.L., you say.
-Uh huh, he grumbles.
His face is blank except for a set of patronizing eyebrows, arching up toward his receding hairline.
-Can I help you with something, sweetheart? he asks impatiently. Or are you just looking to shake my hand? Care for an autograph, too? I’ve got work to do, Ms. Piper. This is a business, as it were.
-I understand, I’m sorry. I just moved to this side of town a couple weeks ago, and my friend Reyno gave me your name and this address. She said to come and ask for you and…well, she didn’t give me much after that.
His face lights up and he lurches out of his chair.
-Reyno! Reyno Criss sent you! Well why didn’t you say so!
Within two seconds, Mr. Whittaker morphs into a categorically different kind of man: the animated kind who flails his arms in big, baroque gestures.
-Best employee I ever had! What a pistol, that one. Ah, god. How’s she doing anyway?
His face is cherubic, rosy red; he grins for miles at the mention of your friend. From then on he looks at you with a specific kind of warmth. The sincere kind-heartedness reserved for true friends. It’s suddenly as though you’re his old chum, like you fought side by side in the trenches.
-She’s great, you say. She said to tell you hi. She’s doing real well, on the West Coast now. Working in an art gallery or something? She’s always been the artsy type, you know. She’s doing real well.
-Great to hear. Splendid news. She’s really got it, that one. Watch, she’ll be the next Andy Warhol, Reyno will. She’ll be a superstar, a goddamn Vince Van Gogh if that’s what she wants! So tell me, are you looking for a job? Is that why she sent you? If so, I’d be happy to find a place for you here. Anybody she recommends has got a place here. I told her that and I meant it.
-Actually yes, you confess. I’ve been writing stories, sold a couple here and there, but I need a steady gig. Part time, full time, whatever you’ve got would be great.
-A storywriter, eh? Very interesting. Hey, don’t go putting me in any stories, now! Hah! They’ll throw me in the big house! I gotta be careful what I say around you, don’t I, Ms. Piper?
He soft-punches your shoulder like you’re old cronies, old pals.
-You got a car? he asks.
-Yes. I walked here, but I’ve got one at home.
-You know how to read a map?
-Good. Are you a liar, cheat, or swindler?
-Fiend, flake, or trouble-starter?
-Of course not, Reyno’s got good taste in people, that one! Okay, well that was the interview. You’ve got yourself a job here if you like.
-I would. Thank you, Mr. Whittaker.
-Ah, it’s Johnnie, he said. Call me Johnnie. You in school or anything?
-No sir. I tried it for a bit, but I didn’t like it much. Not the college type, I guess.
-That’s fine by me, he says. It’s just a piece of paper anyhow, you know? Hardly worth an asswipe nowadays. It shows you can keep your head down and your mouth shut for four or five years and that’s about it. Proof you’re a good hoop-jumper, maybe, a good bull-shitter. I tell you, I see kids come in here every week, university kids, all high and mighty thinking they know something about the world. It’s disgusting. These twerps going around saying they’re political scientists, businessmen, financial analysts. Poets, even! Little bastards never fought a war, never weaned off mama’s teat, definitely never fucked a woman, and by that I mean a real woman, with hair on her snatch, meat on her bones—so tell me, how do they know the first thing about poetry? They wouldn’t know a poem if I rolled it up and stuck it in their trembling virgin ass. How could they?
Mr. Whittaker walks behind the bar and refills his pint glass from the tap.
-All that to say, I don’t blame you, Ms. Piper. I truly don’t. When can you start? he asks.
-Day after tomorrow, you say.
-Okay, be here at ten a.m. sharp.
You shake hands again and he smiles and you fake one back at him. You hurry out the door before you can rethink any of it.
You sink into the fact that you aren’t at your father’s funeral. You try to escape it, to scrub it out, but you can’t. Why are you such a coward? Who could do such a selfish thing? You stay in bed all night, which is precisely when the dark cloud begins to creep into your world. You are stormed up about everything and nothing. The ceiling looks the way ceilings look, twenty-three missed calls, an icy avalanche gaining inertia in your chest. You can’t move. You fantasize about swan diving off the roof of the Peabody Hotel. Getting dolled up and belting Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” at the top of your lungs on Beale Street. Driving to Mexico City, changing your name, and slugging mezcal on a balcony overlooking a busy jugo stand that billows up a saccharine aroma of guayaba y piña y papaya y fresa y mango. But more than all that, you want to doing nothing at all, or ever again.
You don’t go. Instead of driving two hours to hug your mother and stand as pillar of strength for your little sister and say a proper farewell to the man you were born by—you ate a fried egg and people-watched at C.K.’s, you got a job at a pizza restaurant, and then melted into oblivion inside your apartment. That was a choice you made. You couldn’t have told anyone why at the time, but you’ll figure it out eventually. You’ll come to realize you were afraid to face the reality of what your father did, and what that said about you as his daughter. Somewhere inside your gut, you pretend that this lucid and decent day will be the last time in the next ten years that you’ll be able to experience something other than your own anger. So you choose to enjoy it to the extent that you can. That is a choice you make.
Before you fall asleep, you think about the words that bled out of your mother’s mouth during that rotten telephone call. The clumsy words managed to construct for you the scene in which your father killed himself. No one is sure why he did it, but you come up with a million guesses. Each one stings more than the last. He didn’t make a spectacle of his death. He didn’t blow his brains out or crash himself into a telephone pole or swan dive from the Peabody Hotel. He swallowed a handful sleeping pills, crawled into his bed, and fell asleep for all time. That was a choice he made. No note. No phone call to say goodbye. He tidied his small apartment, threw away the leftovers and perishables in his refrigerator, and was lifted eternally up and eternally out in a misty ribbon of steam.
Your first day of work at Pizza Planet is your sixth day of being fatherless. The shift is mostly a blur because your head is lost in the choppy seas of grief and not-grief, avoidance and self-medication. A burly woman named Tee conducts your training. You clock in at ten in the morning to begin prepping for the lunch rush.
-Did they teach you how we cut onions yet? Tee asks.
-Not yet, this is my first day working.
She hoists a cardboard box of red onions onto the steel countertop.
-You cry easy? she asks.
-No, you say.
In the split second your eye blinks closed, you imagine yourself flying over the bombing of Dresden, men and women ablaze and running for dear life, children screaming, Rococo cathedrals toppling like dominoes, and you feel nothing. You do not cry.
-Good girl, she says. She sets a papery red onion on the cutting board in front of you and another one in front of her. She slices it down the center with a large knife.
-First, you have to take the heart out, she says. They’re no good.
-Why? you ask.
-How big is the heart?
-You’ve got to open it and see. It just depends. Sometimes you have to throw entire onions away because the heart’s too big.
-That’s a shame, you say.
Tee shrugs her broad shoulders. You watch her technique as she dices the onion and you mimic her, slower and less precise. The two of you chop the entire box, which takes over an hour. Forty-four onions total, you counted. In the trashcan next to the cutting table: a heaping pile of hearts and skins and one onion that was all heart. You stare at them the way you tend to stare at things. What are you thinking? You’re not sure. Probably just about red onions. Probably thinking, yes, hearts are too bitter and too big. Or maybe about me, you and me and life and the moon and the stars and whole world, and how impossible it all is in the most crucial way, just fully and eternally impossible.
Before the Razor
Inside the Creative Process of “Yesterday and All the Days After That”
Where to start with this one? I worked on this short story for almost four years before I felt like it was finished. Some of it draws on my own experiences living in Memphis; more of it draws on imagined experiences and old fears I drag around with me. There’s a lot of myself in this story, for better or worse. For one, I lived in Memphis for a while in my early twenties and for some reason, many of my short stories end up set in there. That city stuck with me in a very visceral way. Even now, when I go back, I have this unshakeable romantic attachment to it.
When I lived there, I used to sit and people watch at CK’s Diner and wallow in whatever misery I needed to wallow in. I’m pretty outgoing if you meet me on the street; I’m a cheerful, chatty person. But when I can steal moments away to be by myself, you’ll almost always find me hiding in a dark corner, people watching in a diner, or writing in my journal with gin at a bar. Those routines are meditative for me; they are my ‘safe spots’ so to speak. Some people go on runs or take long hikes, I prefer the cozy dimness of bars and diners. Also, I did actually work in a little pizza place in Memphis, I delivered pizzas and did every job there was to do there. My boss was very much like the character in this story.
“Yesterday” was originally written in first person, and I worked and reworked it and reworked it for several years—never feeling satisfied. Then after a fiction workshop at The Porch last year, I decided to rewrite the entire thing in second person, and for whatever reason, it worked. The perspective change transformed it for me. It guess it was the tweak I’d been looking for all those years.
With this story, I wanted to explore anxiety, loss, and avoidance. I tried to imagine one of the biggest obligations one could avoid in life: a parent’s funeral. I wanted to inhabit the person who avoids that and figure out why. I wanted to lean in to all my own cowardice and tendencies to run away or shut down in the face of difficult situations. Writing is, historically, how I grapple with difficult emotions and the least attractive qualities about my psyche. I like to exaggerate them, write through them, and hopefully, if I’m lucky, accept or improve them within myself. (Wishful thinking, maybe?)
As for my writing practice, it’s surging and capricious at times, but persistent. I’ve never stopped writing since I started my first journal when I was nine. Writing is a natural, almost obsessive, part of my life. Sometimes it amounts to something, sometimes it doesn’t. I just keep writing. Another important aspect: I read a lot, mostly fiction and poetry. Finding a new writer or poem or book I love always jumpstarts my writing in new ways. Also, I stay off social media. It’s a distraction that I can’t participate in. These days I’m pretty picky about what media I choose to consume.
Now for photos! Here’s my writing desk at home, my headquarters where I write and edit all my work:
But a good portion of my writing is not done at my desk, but by hand while sitting alone with a gin-and-soda in public places:
And this is my reading nook. I spend a lot of time here underlining sentences in books:
Finally, a secret: I make a lot of zine-type books. I only make two or three copies for each one. It’s mostly just a way to take a short story or set of poems off my computer so they exist in the tangible world. I always get nervous about my computer crashing and all my unpublished work disappearing into the ether; so I print my work into these small “books” that I stow away on my shelf. Here are a few of them:
So there you have it! As for now, I am working on a collection of short stories, which will hopefully be finished by spring of next year. For more, I have a home online: saraestes.com.